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Civil Rights Struggles and Advertising Employment

By the late 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement had critically changed the ways African Americans were depicted in mass media and the advertising industry, particularly. According to Robert Baker and Sandra Ball, a January 1, 1969 study, “Mass Media and Violence: A Staff Report to National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence,” issued by the Kerner Commission examined the effects of the mass media on the sociological and psychological disposition of the dominant and subordinate cultures. It showed that daily repetition of commercials and programs has impressed on African American families that they are have-nots (Baker & Ball 1969). During and immediately following the Civil Rights struggle, African Americans demanded that the mass media accurately portray them in real life situations as wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, workers, and family members, like the elite who control political, economic, and cultural power. African Americans wanted to be depicted as a people who have the same aspirations, desires, and needs as the rest of contemporary American society. They wanted to be incorporated into the advertising industry not only as consumers but also as employees, but discrimination impeded their aspirations. The Civil Rights Act provided a mechanism they could use to challenge explicit discrimination. In the words of Alfred Blumrosen, who in the 1960s served as a consultant to the New Jersey Civil Rights Commission, Office of Equal Opportunity of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Office of Federal Contract Compliance of the Department of Labor,

The crucial innovation in the 1964 Civil Rights Act was the enlargement of the role of the individual right to sue in the federal courts, rather than the enhancement of administrative agency powers. Victims of discrimination were given the right to sue in the federal courts if informal administrative efforts did not settle their claims.... Under the statute as administered, the group interest of minorities is an equal with labor and management at the negotiating table and in the courtroom (Blumrosen 1971: 4).

With this background, African Americans were finally in a position to challenge employment discrimination against them in the advertising industry. The New York City Human Rights Commission finally began to implement one of its secondary goals: to improve recruitment and training of minorities in advertising. In mid-1963, the Urban League released its study of agency employment discrimination (Bloch 1963). The study indicated that 2.5 percent of advertising agency employees were Negro, most in clerical positions. Only 0.7% of managers in advertising were Negro (EEOC 1968: 563, 565). In addition to these relatively small numbers was the fact that black employees were concentrated in a small number of agencies (Chambers 2008: 170).

This report, along with the powerful influence of the Civil Rights Movement, led to a period of intensive scrutiny and dramatic change in the industry. Government and corporate leaders stepped into action. The industry responded with what trade reporters described as a “tremendous push” of training and recruitment programs that began to increase the number of blacks working in mainstream agencies (Chambers 2008: 159). Based on the Urban League study results, the American Association for Advertising Agencies (AAAA) lent its support to job equality, and issued a public statement on antidiscrimination, stating that it was “vital to seek out, recognize, and employ the best talents available ... regardless of race, color, religion or national origin.” Around that same time, the NYCHR sent invitations to ninety-nine agencies to meet with them to discuss the question: “What are agencies doing about equal job opportunity, can they do more (164)?” Over the course of the 1960s, many agencies developed training and hiring programs, often reaching out to minority college and high school students. By 1968, the New York Times reported, “Black America is becoming visible in America’s biggest national advertising medium. Not in a big way yet, but it is a beginning and men in high places give assurances that there will be a lot more visibility (Wilson, Gutierrez, & Chao 2003: 144).

However, all these positive efforts were short-lived. By 1970, there was a rapid decline in government pressure, and successive changes in leadership at the NYCHR severely hampered its ability to foster change in the industry. As the 1960s drew to a close, the sense of urgency had dissipated and other social and economic issues led civil rights, government organization, and public attention elsewhere (Chambers 2008: 204—5). Chambers quotes a black advertising executive who noted, “The [racial] revolution on Madison Avenue is dead forever; from now on it’s all business” (205). Unfortunately, all formal, mandatory, legally enforced efforts to diversify the advertising industry came to a halt and were not publicly discussed again until the twenty-first century.

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